Christmas Eve, Babe, In The Drunk Tank
The Belated Birthday Girl and I spent Christmas 2004 in a hotel in central Manchester, just a few miles away from where my folks live. Here's how that worked out. On Christmas Eve, we found out too late that the hotel kitchen closed at 6pm, and all that was left to eat was warmed-over pizza. On Christmas Day, the journey to my sister's house and back for dinner laid us open to the organised crime they call seasonally adjusted taxi pricing. And on Boxing Day, when a proposed family cinema trip fell through, we spent the whole day wandering round a deserted city centre looking for things to do.
Not that I'm blaming Manchester, of course - the whole of Britain tends to shut down for those few days every year, even London. So when the time came to work out what we were doing for Christmas 2005, we were looking for a destination that didn't grind to a halt during the last week of December: somewhere where people who weren't staying with families could still find things to do at any time of the day or night. A city that never sleeps, if you will.
Which is how we ended up in New York for the last ten days of 2005, once we'd got past the now-compulsory shredding of our personal freedoms by Homeland Security at JFK - I mean, what's the point of photographing all arrivals into the US, when everyone looks shifty and uncomfortable after a seven and a half hour longhaul flight? Still, once we were settled in, there was no denying that the Big Apple met our requirements. It was most obvious on Christmas Day, when we took a morning stroll northwards from our base at the Royalton on West 44th and found large numbers of people out and about doing things - shopping, skating, eating in restaurants, waiting for cinemas to open. None of that would have been possible back home: I can remember exactly a year ago noting how central Manchester looked like a ghost town on Christmas morning, simply because of the total lack of public transport.
Our two activities for Christmas Day were definitively New York ones - and amusingly, the first one wasn't even Christian. There are two great traditions for New York Jews who want to avoid the festivities on the day: eating Chinese food (it's kosher, and the restaurants are open) and seeing movies (all the cinemas are open too, and do a roaring trade). Makor is a Jewish cultural centre on West 67th, and for the past couple of years they've combined those two traditions into one neat value-for-money package. So for 35 bucks, we got access to their all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet lunch, and could mix and match between two double bills of movies by Jewish comedy legends Billy Wilder and Gene Wilder. Of the two we chose, Young Frankenstein is still a film of great moments separated by long patches of blah, and Gene Wilder shouts too much as usual. But The Apartment (which I'd never seen before) is another Billy Wilder machine-tooled classic, and the highlight of the day was the line of dialogue that revealed the apartment of the title to be at 51 West 67th - theoretically, eight doors down from Makor itself. The buffet was excellent as well, particularly the beef egg rolls.
And that was just the afternoon: for our evening entertainment, we got the subway over to the world-famous Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Most of the show is beautifully staged, large-scale fun in the classic Broadway style - a 3D movie ride on Santa's sleigh, huge sets, lightning costume changes, and the precision-drilled dance routines of the Rockettes. (But is it just me, guys, or does the sight of 36 women all smiling continuously scare the living crap out of you too?) The curious bit is at the end - following the climax of a race-against-time plot involving Santa and his elves, we suddenly lurch into a depiction of the Nativity with real animals, screaming choirs and atrocious choreography. (Mary and Joseph repeatedly perform some sort of gesture of worship that makes it look like they've got stuck on the Y in YMCA.) It's so astonishingly kitsch that you barely notice something The BBG picked up on: a closing text crawl which emphasises the importance to the planet of this "one solitary life", but does it without mentioning that whole Being The Son Of God business that might offend certain audiences. It's such a letdown after all the showbizzy stuff that nobody knows whether to leave at the end or not - a major achievement in a Christmas show, turning the birth of Christ into an anticlimax.
Much of our stay was theatrical in nature, which is only to be expected in a town like this. We only saw one proper Broadway show, but it was a doozy: Monty Python's Spamalot, the musical adapted by Eric Idle and John du Prez from the movie Monty Python And The Holy Grail. There's a certain combination of chutzpah and sheer physical scale that's always symbolised the Great White Way for me, and till now the closest I've ever come to seeing that idea visualised is in the West End transfer of The Producers. There, Mel Brooks' songs are obviously written by someone who knows how to construct a 16 bar tune, but doesn't have any real aptitude for it. You wait for most of the songs in The Producers to stop so you can get back to the funny stuff, which certainly isn't the case with Spamalot. In fact, the show turns out to be as much a spoof on the Broadway musical as it is about the Arthurian legend. The best number, You Won't Succeed On Broadway, is quite specifically targeted at, er, the New York theatre demographic, and will probably need some hefty rewriting before the West End transfer (just announced for Autumn 2006). Hopefully the London cast will include Simon Russell Beale, who'd been playing King Arthur for precisely five days when we saw it, and had already made the role his own. He hits the same note of bemused authority that Graham Chapman did in the movie, but adds his own pompous arrogance to it, and plays it all magnificently straight (which I suspect his predecessor Tim Curry might not have been able to pull off).
The Brits have always had a presence in New York theatre, of course. While we were there, Mark Rylance and the crew from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre were appearing at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, performing their all-male version of Measure For Measure. The mixed-sex version was incredibly successful when it played the Globe in 2004, so we were curious to see how the recasting would work - not that much different, as it turns out. There are only three female roles of note, and most of the rest of the original cast has come over for this run. Mark Rylance is the main difference - in this version he's a much more tentative and bumbling Duke, whose hyperrealism in comparison to everyone else's traditional declaiming initially causes some nervous audience laughter. The BBG thinks it's just that Rylance is trying to keep himself interested in the role, whereas I think he's taking advantage of the greater intimacy of being able to play under a roof for once, and adding some subtlety that simply wouldn't play at the Globe. Either way, it all works well, and it's nice to have caught Rylance in his final year with the Globe before he moves on elsewhere.
And still staying with British theatre, the first ever New York production of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is currently playing to a sold-out audience of over-60s, homosexuals, and no more than three straight couples under pensionable age. Director Scott Elliott and The New Group have taken the brave decision to stick to the location and period of Leigh's original script. Actually, it's hard to imagine a time when this wasn't a period piece, so tied in is it with British class aspirations of the mid-seventies. Watching the play in a place like this makes you more attuned than usual to the cartoony unrealism of Leigh's dialogue, and it hits me halfway through that his repeated banalities sound like the conversations you get in an English As A Foreign Language course. ("Do you like olives?" "I don't like olives." "Susan and I like olives very much.") The accents all hold up well, though Elizabeth Jasicki is very obviously doing that Mike Leigh working class dullard voice, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is pitched somewhere between her Dorothy Parker and Morwenna Banks' shouty little girl from Absolutely. But it's still good entertainment, with a name-that-tune punk soundtrack rattling the bass bins throughout, and the added fun of watching at least one oldster putting his fingers in his ears through the act 2 opening rendition of Anarchy In The UK.
While we were in town, it seemed polite to arrange a meetup with Carole, this site's regular Philadelphia-based correspondent. She popped into New York for a day, and on her suggestion we hit the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for the Moscow Cats Theatre. As the name implies, it's a show based around a troupe of performing cats, though their human assistants take up the bulk of the stage time. It's a bit of a disappointment all round, unfortunately. The cats are slow and overfed, so that the only skill most of them need is just to stay still while being pushed and thrown around the stage. Meanwhile, the human clowning is threadbare and repetitive: the sideways dance that leader Yuri Kuklachev does while working out what to do next becomes utterly infuriating by the end. Fiendishly, the show can't lose, because whenever a cat fails to pull off a trick, your reaction is (to quote The BBG) "ha ha, the cats have beaten the man". It's worrying how in those situations, the failed cat is bundled off and quickly replaced by a second one, who usually makes a better stab at the trick. But what happens to the first cat?
Did we see any American theatre in New York? Well, yes: Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions Of A Teenage Blockhead. Teenager CB is in a state following the death of his beloved dog, and is seeking solace from the friends he's had since childhood: the pothead Van and his pyromaniac sister, the jock Matt, the sensitive pianist Beethoven, the girlfriends Tricia and Marcy. But these friends have a somewhat familar past: Van has been permanently high ever since he smoked his security blanket, Matt keeps lashing out at the world because of his personal hygiene problem... and, you've got it, the dog hung around with a small bird like it was his best friend. This is the unofficial (and possibly illegal) story of the kids from Charles Schultz's Peanuts, ten years on. It's all good transgressive fun, and surprisingly moving in the latter stages, though the uncomfortable audience reaction to (sod it) Charlie Brown's opening monologue about Snoopy's death from rabies made it touch and go there for a bit. A cast of familiar faces from TV and films all act their socks off (Eliza 'Faith from Buffy' Dushku, Ian 'Boone from Lost' Somerhalder, Eddie 'Finch from American Pie' Kaye Thomas), with Logan 'Trey from The O.C.' Marshall-Green a particular standout as Beethoven. It'd be nice to see this one transfer to the UK - as long as other people don't have my problem of not being able to tell any of Schultz's girls apart, they'll love it.
And now, to misquote Dillinger: a knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork, that's the way The Belated Birthday Girl spells New York...
New York is a great place for eating: whether you want to grab a bagel or a slice of cheesecake, eat breakfast at a 24 hour diner, grab a cheap Thai meal in stylish surroundings, drink quality tea while eating healthy veggie food, or dine at top gourmet restaurants, it's all there. We did all those things, and more, but I'm going to tell you about 5 of the best restaurants we ate in - 5 of the best in New York and, arguably, the world.
One of those restaurants which at least some people think is among the best in the world is wd-50, Wylie Dufresne's restaurant located in the Lower East Side. The USP of wd-50 is combining unusual ingredients to produce unexpected and excellent dishes. The atmosphere is very casual - not at all how you'd expect a top restaurant to feel - and the service, from the fashionable, young waiting staff, friendly and (mostly) informative. First came a very tasty egg-nog amuse bouche, which the waiter described in minute detail: we could overhear similarly detailed explanations of dishes being given to our fellow diners as their meals arrived, and this added to the fun of the place. Then came our starter of mussel-olive oil soup with water chestnut and orange powder, which was quite delicious. But to my disappointment we didn't get a detailed explanation this time, whether because they thought we looked too scummy to deserve one or too knowledgeable to need one. The same happened with our main courses: mine of scallops with celery noodles, hazelnut-potato and pine needle oil, and Spank's chicken with green olive, green apple and sake soubise. The food was wonderful, and the unusual use of pine-needle oil worked perfectly with the scallop dish: but by not having the descriptions when the food arrived, I definitely felt I was missing part of the experience. To drink, we had the 2004 Dry Riesling 'Isolation Ridge' from Frankland Estate, West Australia. Finally we finished up with desserts of a creme brulee for Spank and a lemon curd dish for me: the latter was just the right amount of food, and was sharp and creamy and quite lovely.
Staying with the letter "W", as a restaurant you couldn't get much more different from wd-50 than Wolfgang's Steakhouse on Park Avenue at 33rd. Wolfgang's is one of those places where the food is done perfectly, with as little done to it as possible: just cut it up, and cook it. Or not even that, as in the case of my starter of little neck clams on the half shell, served raw like oysters, fresh-tasting and slightly chewy. Spank had the crabcake followed by the prime NY sirloin steak, which was beautifully cut and cooked absolutely to perfection, with a side order of some of the most terrific fries (the Atkins-freaks at the next table were really missing something). For myself, I ordered the grilled swordfish, which again was perfectly cooked, with a side order of delicious creamy mashed potatoes. The wine, which was big and full, with terrific length, was the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 2002. What made Wolfgang's even better, though, was the combination of the fabulous space of the restaurant itself, and the quite uniquely New York waiting staff and service. Instead of the young, fashionable, model-like staff you'd find in many restaurants, the waiters at Wolfgang's were real New York guys: big, tough-looking, joking together, no-nonsense. But still friendly and helpful. And the vaulted ceilings of the former Vanderbilt Hotel restaurant made this a beautiful place to eat the wonderful food in. The photos of famous people who've dined at Wolfgang's included David "Angel" Boreanaz and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, and I can see why they'd choose to eat there.
The nearest we got to famous people at the River Cafe in Brooklyn's soon-to-be-up-and-coming-but-still-full-of-disused-warehouses DUMBO district was being waited on by Tommy Lee Jones, or his Dutch near-double. Very fortunate to get this one as a walk-in, at an absolutely perfect time to watch the sun go down as we sipped pre-dinner drinks in the bar, looking out over the East River towards Downtown. The River Cafe is justly famous for its stunning views, but the food - a fairly pricey prix fixe menu being the only option in the restaurant - is every bit the view's equal. My starter of crispy Pacific oysters wrapped with smoked salmon was excellent, and Spank's rabbit and ravioli was just as good. The mains were also very good, with my black sea bass, served with incredibly tasty artichoke raviolini, looking a little on the small side but in fact perfect in quantity as well as flavour: and Spank's Cape Cod monkfish, accompanied by suckling pig filled ravioli (a lot of ravioli on the menu) being quite delicious. I had to fit in a light dessert, and so went for the sorbet plate, which included a beautifully citrussy clementine citrus sorbet and a tasty and unusual buttermilk sorbet. And for a grand finale, Spank had the Chocolate Marquise Brooklyn Bridge, which was visually spectacular and, so he tells me, yummy.
When it comes to stunning views, Megu's is on the inside. This stylish and dramatic Japanese restaurant in Tribeca is billed in many restaurant reviews as Dining as Theatre, and that is a fair description. We each ordered something from the "Zensai" appetizers section, and something from the "Onsai" Middle Course section, plus a savoury red miso soup "Hoshiroku's" Akadashi and some rice. The soup was very good, but in Japan it would have been brought at the end with the rice, not alone as a starter. From the appetisers, Spank's raw tofu was very good indeed - the best I've had outside Japan - and my hamachi carpaccio, a very thin sashimi of yellowtail fish, was also excellent. However, as a non meat-eater I was happy to leave the Kobe beef entirely to Spank, and went for sautťed sweet shrimp in kanzuri cream sauce. The 'Kobe beef' was in fact American, but in all other respects is, apparently, authentic (certainly the marbling of the fat looked as I would expect). And Spank tells me it was very good indeed - no doubt enhanced by the whole cooking-it-yourself-on-a-hot-stone fun. My one complaint is that when the rice eventually came, it was stodgy: either overcooked, or not good grade, or both. Finally, Spank had a sencha creme brulee for dessert, which he says was the best he has ever had: impressive coming from a creme brulee afficionado like him (and I can confirm that it was delicious). So apart from the miso soup and rice being served wrongly (and the rice not being very good), Megu was everything it was billed - including the high price tag.
Finally, the restaurant which proudly displays its Guinness World of Records certificate for world's most expensive burger, db bistro: the most casual of Daniel Boulud's several New York restaurants, situated very centrally and convenient for our hotel, on West 44th Street. Every write-up I have seen of db bistro is accompanied by a photo of their cheapest $29 burger (for $120 you can have it with double truffle), so we knew what Spank would have for his main course before we even set foot in the place. The atmosphere was sophisticated, intimate, yet relaxed and un-intimidating. The menu is divided by theme, rather than into starters and mains, with larger and smaller dishes in each section. I started with Moroccan tuna tartare, which was a delicious mound of succulent raw tuna with just a few chickpeas and a dab of seasoning: Spank went for the fall squash soup with crispy pumpkin seeds, which had tempted me, too. As previously mentioned, Spank's main was the Original db Burger, full of fois gras, braised short ribs and black truffles, and it was apparently as rich and indulgent as it sounds. I went for the skate wing, with an interesting accompaniment of roasted porcini glazed chestnuts, Brussels sprouts and squash coulis, which made a nice change from more usual ways of serving this fish. The food was excellent, if a bit 'low-carb' for my taste (if there were any sides of potatoes on the menu, other than the fries which accompanied the burgers, I missed them).
The only things these 5 restaurants all had in common were being in New York, serving top food in good surroundings, and us choosing them. That's the thing about New York: it has a variety of restaurants exceeding (I'd hazard a guess) anywhere other than London - and possibly even exceeding London. And the prices are somewhat lower than in London - even once you've added on your 15-20% service charge. There were many other places we ate at which were terrific, but there's not room to mention them all. And there were many restaurants I would have loved to have tried, but there's never enough time. I guess we'll just have to go back again some day...
Back to me again for the usual General Sightseeing And Stuff That Didn't Fit Elsewhere section. For nighttime views of New York, it's hard to beat Top Of The Rock, the just-reopened observation deck near the top of the Rockefeller Center. The introductory exhibition gives a handy overview of the history of the Center's construction, but it can't prepare you for the stunning view on three levels, without all that irritating peering-through-protective-fencing you have to do at the top of the Empire State. During the day, it's worth the wait to get a place on the Circle Line boat tour - go for the three hour version, which does a complete trip around the whole of Manhattan island. We found out pretty quickly that you need to be sat on the left hand side of the boat if you want to be able to see Manhattan throughout, which was a bugger as weíd chosen to sit on the right - but itís easy enough to move around once the trip starts, and thereís still a lot of interesting stuff to see in Brooklyn and so on from the right hand side. It's enhanced by a smart and wry commentary from a tour guide with a roving mike, who pops up next to you on the boat when you least expect it.
For those afternoons when you're looking for a museum visit, there are obviously several to choose from. It helps to be aware in advance that the Radio and Television Museum isnít the sort you can just stroll through - aside from a couple of public screening rooms which show archive highlights all day, itís mainly a series of interactive terminals which you can use to call up any one of the programmes in their extensive library. Foolishly, we turned up at 4pm on a holiday Friday and found all the terminals were booked out for the rest of the day, which limited us to those screening rooms. Not an issue, as we were just in time for a terrific 90 minute programme of Muppet clips from the last fifty years, climaxing in their 1962 unscreened pilot for a fairytale spoof show called Tales Of The Tinkerdee. If you want the sort of museum that requires actual walking, you'll find a good one in the New York Transit Museum, which is excellent value for five bucks entry. Lots of historical background on the construction of the subway, fascinating artefacts from the whole history of the city's transport system, and - best of all - the lower level is an actual disused station platform with a dozen vintage subway carriages (complete with original ads) that you can walk around.
If modern art's your bag, then the Museum of Modern Art is an obvious port of call, but a word of warning. Normally MoMA charges $20 for entry, but between 4pm and 8pm on Fridays they let people in for free. Do not assume that you are the only person who's heard of this offer. We got there to find an enormous queue that went round the corner of the block into a car park and snaked back round on itself seven or eight times. We were told as we joined the queue that it would take an hour to get to the front: that may just be a device to scare people off, because we were inside within 25 minutes. My impression after a 90 minute run round MoMA is that it may have a very impressive collection, but itís confusingly laid out, with few signposts to tell you where everything is. The big exhibit on the day was a splendid collection of Pixarís pre-production artwork, but it took us about half an hour to find out where it was, and thatís just wrong. Still, we catch another temporary exhibit on the way: Safe, an entertaining collection of safety equipment and related jokey art. It's not completely impossible to track stuff down - as an experiment, I decided at 7.55pm I wanted to see Van Goghís Starry Night, and found it with just under a minute to spare - but be prepared to spend time just wandering.
As far as non-theatrical live performance goes, we decided to visit a comedy club, and ended up at Carolineís. Unlike the venues dedicated to comedy back in London, this is more of a nightclub which just happens to have stand-up as the entertainment: table service and a two-drink minimum on top of your cover charge, which means that you frequently can't hear the comics because waiters are hassling you to buy more booze. Generalising wildly on the state of American stand-up from the three acts on this bill, it seems as if American comics have gone all the way through the whole alternative comedy movement and come out the other side. As a result, transgressing PC barriers in a way you canít on TV appears to be what passes for comedy now. Most of the materialís about race, dope or porn - a British comic would talk about his porn use in an ironic way to send himself up, but here Dave Attellís talking about bukkake to bond with an audience, and thatís a little bit creepy. Still, there are definite laughs, particularly as this is the third and last show of the night, allowing Attell to stretch out a little (i.e. get drunk and overrun wildly).
And so to the climax of our visit, New Year's Eve. We'd booked in a hotel a couple of blocks from Times Square with the vague plan of possibly joining in with the public festivities. Once we found out that you'd need to stand in Times Square from 4pm to see anything, that idea got swiftly knocked on the head. Instead, the evening is spent at the splendid Northsix venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a charming place where even the security guard checking our IDs on the door is fun (when he clocks my place of birth on my passport, he says "Iím just mad because City drew Middlesbrough today" - and they did, too). And we get to see Brooklyn's own They Might Be Giants playing the first of two New Year's Eve shows. It's a tight squeeze all round: physically, because they move everyone forward so we can't get back to the bar after our first drink, and temporally, because TMBG take the stage at 9pm knowing that the doors for their second show have to open at 11. But they manage it, doing pretty much every song you could possibly want them to do from their epic back catalogue. The best part is the collection of Venue Songs, one written for each date on their 2004 tour, held together with narration by Robin ĎGoldieí Goldwasser. Itís all wrapped up with an early Auld Lang Syne singalong (four verses, gender-divided) and a riotous Istanbul to finish.
From there, itís a rush across town to get back to the Royalton before midnight. The subway journey is surprisingly painless: when we get to our block it's been sealed off to prevent further access to Times Square, but the police let us through once we say weíre residents. We get to the hotel bar for 11.45, in good time to watch the ball drop on the TV in the lobby, with free champagne laid on for midnight. We carry on till late working through the cocktail menu, with only one minor incident to spoil the mood. I take the lift up to our room for a quick dump, only to find a young girl sat in front of the lifts crying. While in the bathroom, I can hear her run into the room next door, slam the door, and then engage in a five minute screaming match with a Scottish woman. By the time Iím leaving our room again, one of the lobby staff is outside ensuring me everythingís fine, while two security guards are heading down the hallway towards us. I hope the rest of the year isnít going to be all like this. Being a monkey, and all.
Travel and accommodation: we flew Virgin Atlantic, and both of us agree that their inflight entertainment system is a worldbeater. Fifty-odd movies, several dozen TV shows, all available on demand with pause and rewind facilities. Plus, y'know, the planes didn't crash or anything. Once there we stayed at the Royalton Hotel, which is pretty damn swish considering I don't have a job right now. Getting around the city once we were there was a breeze thanks to our MTA Metrocards: happily, that transport strike you may have read about was called off literally while we were on the plane to New York.
General information: Time Out New York was our friend, just like its London equivalent is back home. Its eating and drinking guide supplied most of the places where we ate, and its listings helped us pick stuff to do.
Theatre: (all details correct as of mid-February 2006) The Radio City Christmas Spectacular has finished for another year, but Radio City Music Hall goes on. Monty Python's Spamalot is ongoing at the Shubert Theater. Measure For Measure is long gone now, but obviously there's still plenty to see at St Ann's Warehouse, and at Shakespeare's Globe in London once the weather gets a bit better. The New Group's production of Abigail's Party at Theatre Row has been extended through to April 8th. Moscow Cats Theatre has transferred from Tribeca Performing Arts Center to the Lamb's Theatre, and is threatening to be there for ever. Dog Sees God continues at Century Center For The Performing Arts, but watch out for cast changes. We bought tickets for all these through a combination of Ticketmaster, Telecharge, TicketWeb and Ticket Central.
Miscellaneous culture: Makor is where we spent our Jewish Christmas afternoon, but they've got stuff going on all year round. The Museum of Television and Radio (going Muppet crazy till April 30th) and New York Transit Museum are both excellent rainy day options. The Museum of Modern Art has a splendid permanent collection, if you can take the time to track it all down: the two temporary exhibits we saw, Safe and Pixar: 20 Years Of Animation, have both closed now. Caroline's has standup comedy most nights of the week - we saw Dave Attell and Chelsea Handler there. Northsix is a splendid place to see bands like They Might Be Giants and drink Brooklyn Brewery beer, before staggering out to see what else is going on in Williamsburg.
February 15th 2006